Verb specificity and argument realization in Tzeltal child language

Brown, P. (2008). Verb specificity and argument realization in Tzeltal child language. In M. Bowerman, & P. Brown (Eds.), Crosslinguistic perspectives on argument structure: Implications for learnability (pp. 167-189). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
How do children learn a language whose arguments are freely ellipsed? The Mayan language Tzeltal, spoken in southern Mexico, is such a language. The acquisition pattern for Tzeltal is distinctive, in at least two ways: verbs predominate even in children’s very early production vocabulary, and these verbs are often very specific in meaning. This runs counter to the patterns found in most Indo-European languages, where nouns tend to predominate in early vocabulary and children’s first verbs tend to be ‘light’ or semantically general. Here I explore the idea that noun ellipsis and ‘heavy’ verbs are related: the ‘heavy’ verbs restrict the nominal reference and so allow recovery of the ‘missing’ nouns. Using data drawn from videotaped interaction of four Tzeltal children and their caregivers, I examined transitive clauses in an adult input sample and in child speech, and tested the hypothesis that direct object arguments are less likely to be realized overtly with semantically specific verbs than with general verbs. This hypothesis was confirmed, both for the adult input and for the speech of the children (aged 3;4-3;9). It is therefore possible that argument ellipsis could provide a clue to verb semantics (specific vs. general) for the Tzeltal child.
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